Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Ability to Enter Torpor Might Have Saved Mammals Across the KT/K-Pg Mass Extinction

Cool echidnas survive the fire


Nowack et al


Fires have occurred throughout history, including those associated with the meteoroid impact at the Cretaceous–Palaeogene (K–Pg) boundary that eliminated many vertebrate species. To evaluate the recent hypothesis that the survival of the K–Pg fires by ancestral mammals was dependent on their ability to use energy-conserving torpor, we studied body temperature fluctuations and activity of an egg-laying mammal, the echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus), often considered to be a ‘living fossil’, before, during and after a prescribed burn. All but one study animal survived the fire in the prescribed burn area and echidnas remained inactive during the day(s) following the fire and substantially reduced body temperature during bouts of torpor. For weeks after the fire, all individuals remained in their original territories and compensated for changes in their habitat with a decrease in mean body temperature and activity. Our data suggest that heterothermy enables mammals to outlast the conditions during and after a fire by reducing energy expenditure, permitting periods of extended inactivity. Therefore, torpor facilitates survival in a fire-scorched landscape and consequently may have been of functional significance for mammalian survival at the K–Pg boundary.

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